The GORE-TEX® Experience Tour Fan Dance Challenge is one of a series of projects designed by Gore to give outdoors folks the chance to take part in money-can’t-buy experiences. Derbyshire-based pilot, Stephen Smith is one of 10 winners who headed for South Wales in the first week of September to attempt the infamous Fan Dance and he kindly agreed to tell us a bit about how the daunting challenge went. You can read Stephen's own blog at smithschallenge2012.wordpress.com.
Preparation Is King
1 week ago myself and 9 other like minded people attempted the Gore Tex Experience Tour Fan Dance Challenge across the Brecon Beacons. 7 days of recovery later and although I’m now back to full fitness, I have yet to recover from just how amazing the whole experience was and am eager for more!
The GORE-TEX® Experience Tour is all about giving people a "money can't buy" experience and this delivered on all accounts! Meeting the team it was immediately clear that everyone shared a passion for the outdoors, everyone had that urge, that longing, that passion for challenges, that love for the mountains and the escape and pure joy it brings with it.
We were all eager and perhaps still a little nervous about what the weekend and subsequent challenge day would finally entail. For now we were safe in the hands of our British Military Fitness Mountain Leaders Pete Curley and Jason Revel and by god they delivered in style!
Our first morning on Sunday was taken by Jason for Navigation Theory then an exercise that would lead us out up and over Fan Fawr before attempting a river crossing exercise that afternoon! With our routes plotted, distances and times allocated and elevations worked out we had one final task to pace our 100m. Fortunately the car park across the road from the Storey Arms turned out to be just over 100m in length and so amongst the curious eyes of other weekend hill walkers we all set off, in silence, walking along the car park concentrating on not losing count - we must have looked like a right bunch!
Navigation Exercise – Jason Revel, Fan Fawr leading to River Crossing Exercise
Setting off it felt great to finally be out on the hill, putting what we learnt into practice and working up a sweat! I think we were all conscious of being watched for our individual fitness levels as we ascended Fan Fawr, so I was keen to keep with the front of the group as best I could without over doing it!
It felt great being out on the hills with the others, swapping stories, finding out more about what people have done and just how much more there is to do out there if you look for it!! With the summit reached by all the group we took our bearing and by ‘hand-railing’ along a ridge we made our way to the final way point that just so happened to be by a river...
River Crossing Exercise
The river setting was amazing! Trees and steep banks flanked the land that ran alongside the river we would surely be attempting to cross soon, where down below we could see Pete and Sarah waiting for us. On the floor were harnesses and the kit that a military recruit or marine would be carrying, including static lines, strops and carabiners.
We all concentrated hard on remembering the knots and processes to rig the system! I'm still not sure whether it was just me, but my knowledge of knots was limited to tying my shoe laces and the odd tie, so I was keen to be shown the knots a couple more times!
A competition scenario was created to see which of two teams could get across the river quickest. But there was a twist! On our Royal Marine Pete’s command it was a race up one of the steepest hills we saw all weekend, then back down to our stations to start with the system of rigging our crossing line! It was a great rush running up that hill and wasn't by anyone's standards an easy feat!
One person was required to first get across the river with one end of the rope and set up on the other side. That person was me. I didn’t argue as I was keen to run across a river – you don’t get many opportunities to do that now! It was at this point I found a problem and only issue withGoreTexshoes and that is when running across a flowing river they don't just keep the water out. They also keep the water in!!! My legs, feet and trousers were soaked but I didn't care! I was loving it!
We worked really well as a team and I think both our rope management and communication as a team pulled us literally across to the winning side, not just beating the other team once but then twice on the return challenge back! Once again we were faced with running up the hill again as to win the return leg, it would be first team across, lines organised and tidy and a sprint to the top of the hill! Totally amazing!
Night Time Navigation
It was now back to the Storey Arms for a hot shower, food and a briefing for grid reference points to plot ready for the night-time navigational exercise after dinner! I was really looking forward to this one! Setting off out up onto the Fan Frynych just as the sun was setting was a pretty amazing sight. Once on top and following the ridge line to our next point the view was incredible.
Low level cloud sat in the valleys to thenorth west, bathed by the glow of an almost fun moon! What made the whole experience that bit better was the company in which you are there with. Swapping our own stories of challenges and the outdoors to hearing stories of survival and training in the army from Jason just made what was an incredible night that much better. The surroundings in which we told and listened to them in were almost surreal.
Head torches weren’t allowed, not unless we were reading the map and so we navigated by moon light high up on the Brecon Beacons! The 7km route took us around 1:45min to complete and as we made our was down the ridge, past wild ponies and sheep silhouetted against the moon light, the lights of the Storey Arms began to appear behind the cloud bank as we descending the hill through bogs, puddles and slippery rocks. It was a satisfying and incredibly enjoyable experience to have navigated the route under the cover of darkness and be back in time for a cold bottle of beer before a well-earned sleep!
Day 3 - Survival Training
As with the previous morning, hot porridge was on the go in its masses courtesy of Sarah King, the Events Manager for BMF. Always a great start to the day. Today was the day I was most looking forward to in the run up to the challenge. Survival Training - byRoyalMarineMountainLeaders. Even the title sounds amazing!
Once again the setting for today's training was stunning. I was keen as mustard for this and hugely excited to learn some new skills! To start, Pete went through survival basics and stories of survival in all conditions and his experience shone through in masses! We went through survival packs, what should be in them and why they're in there including the many uses of tampons and condoms! We talked about using our surroundings and wildlife to our advantage, locating drinking water, food, shelter etc etc The list goes on!! I was mesmerised.
Once the basics were covered it was over to Andy who talked us through and demonstrated the many uses of a knife and how to make a sustainable and safe fire. With his demo roaring away it was over to us, broken down into teams of two we all set off collecting our stores of twigs, sticks, rocks and wood. Unfortunately mine and team mate Barry's fire lighting skills left a lot to be desired and while bathed in the heat off other teams burning furnaces, Barry and I sweated to make a flame. After the 20mins we had started a fire (granted a small one). If you squinted through the flames of our nearest team’s furnace you could just about make out our first puff of smoke! Man had made fire!
From fire we covered celestial navigation, the use of snares, carving sticks to make traps for catching food in a survival situation. The best was yet to come though when we were shown a Kalua, or underground oven, for cooking food in. Carrots, Potatoes, Fish and Steak were all placed inside and covered, using the hot rocks from fires (not from mine and Barry’s fire though!) left for an hour and then dug out. I was so impressed with how tender and moist the fish and meat was after being cooked by this method! It just made me want to go out camping, catch all my own food, make my own fire and dig my own oven. One great tip I remember was that in a cold environment the hot stones from around the fire can be placed in a hole, dug in and re-covered so you can sleep on the area to stay warm. Genius!
The build up to the challenge
Back at the Storey Arms our thoughts now turned to challenge day and there was definitely a change across the general mood of the group. In the run up, I had thought a lot about the actual challenge day and before winning a place, I received an email questioning my fitness levels which made me wonder if it was out of my reach.
Winning the place meant I now had a chance to not only prove to myself I could do this but also to the team and organisers who would be relying on me too. It was these thoughts that were running through my mind as we walked outside on the Monday evening after survival training, to an impressive model built by Jason depicting the route that was currently shadowing us. This bit is not word for word but it went a little something like this....
"Team Gore! You will be completing a fast recce of the area which is known to be infiltrated by Welsh separatists. Your start point will be the Storey Arms Grid reference…. You will carry out a reece of the area and then rendezvous with our informant at Grid 0495 1680 before returning to the Storey Arms at your best individual efforts. Your cut off time at the Storey Arms is 4 hours. We will form up at the start line 07:45 for a 0800 start. Breakfast will be at 0630 hours."
Our challenge had been set. 4 hours to cover the 24km, 14.6miles route, climbing the Pen y Fan at 2907ft, 886m, not once but twice as well as up towards Corn Du at 873m, 2864ft. A total ascent waited for us of around 6000ft up and 6000ft down. It was definitely going to be tough. I felt a little anxious but I also felt ready.
Click here for part 2 of this feature...